Jimmy Hemmig was walking back from a fishing trip by the dam at Lake Needwood in Derwood when he felt a sharp pain and thought he had hooked himself with his own fishing rod.
Then, the Rockville volunteer firefighter looked around. He saw a snake “one or two feet away,” but not just any snake; Hemmig quickly identified it as a venomous copperhead.
“It hurt pretty good, but it wasn’t the worst [pain] I ever had,” he said of the snake bite he received on the evening of July 9.
Realizing what had happened, he called out to his fishing buddy. “I said, ‘Hey. It’s a copperhead. I need you to call an ambulance,’” recalled the 22-year old Hemmig, who attends Montgomery College, waits tables and plays video games.
“I guess it took him a second” to comprehend what had happened, and meanwhile, Hemmig was working at “just trying to stay calm.”
Between his love of the outdoors and his training as a firefighter, Hemmig knew that it was important not to panic, because “the faster your heart is beating, the more blood is pumping,” thereby spreading the deadly venom throughout his body.
Soon the ambulance arrived and transported Hemmig to Adventist Health Care Shady Grove Medical Center in Rockville.
His foot already was swelling a great deal by the time the doctors administered the first round of anti-venom. The Richard Montgomery High School graduate received three more rounds and spent Monday night in the hospital before being allowed to go home Tuesday evening.
“All things considered, it didn’t go too poorly,” he said a few days after the event. “Everybody involved did a great job.”
While the medical staff assisted him, Hemmig said he couldn’t stop thinking, “I just got bit by a venomous snake.”
Through his many fishing and hiking trips at Lakes Needwood and Seneca in Germantown, Hemmig has seen “a huge amount of water snakes.” He even saw two baby copperheads several months ago. He always stopped to watch them, and he still will, he said.
Despite his pain and bruising, Hemmig still likes snakes, although he plans to keep a keener eye out for them.
While copperheads aren’t common in Maryland, and particularly not in Montgomery County, “a few people get bit by copperheads” each year, said Paula Becker, a natural resource biologist at the state Department of Natural Resources.
“Normally we don’t see them, and that’s the problem,” she said. “Copperheads freeze and wait for you. They wait for you to walk by, and then they bite.”
Their bite causes red blood cells to break down, she noted.
Snakes usually stay near streams, lakes and ponds or under brush or woody debris. They regulate their body temperature by basking on rocks in the sun or hiding beneath rocks to cool down, she said.
Becker advised everyone near water or in wooded areas to wear covered shoes or rubber boots and leather gloves and definitely “be aware of your body and space.”
If you see a snake and want to take a photo, “use the zoom,” she stressed.
Venomous snake bites are easily treatable in most adults. The bites are more serious for youngsters and anyone with a depressed immune system, she said.
If bitten, a person should stay calm and not apply a tourniquet or try and suck out the venom, she said. The best thing to do is get to a doctor as quickly as possible.
Besides copperheads, the timber rattlesnake is the only other venomous snake found in Maryland. They both belong to the pit viper family. There are 27 other types of snakes located throughout the state, but those are harmless and don’t deliver a poisonous bite.
Hemmig is relieved everything turned out OK and can even joke about it all, especially how he was assisted in the ambulance by someone with whom he had attended EMT classes and how neither one of them had helped a snake-bite victim until that night.
“We were just going fishing for a couple of hours,” he said. “It turned out to be a longer night.”